Many women are forced into prostitution to 'repay' the costs of coming to the UK | Photo: Picture-alliance/PAWire/D.Lipinski
Many women are forced into prostitution to 'repay' the costs of coming to the UK | Photo: Picture-alliance/PAWire/D.Lipinski

Two new government schemes designed to bring in short-term migrant workers to cover the shortfall created by Brexit could increase exploitation and leave low-paid workers vulnerable to abuse, think charities like Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) and the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford.

The Migration Observatory at Oxford University points out, in a 2018 report, that for the last 15 years, the EU’s ‘free movement of people’ policy has been “the main legal channel through which migrant workers have come to the UK to work low-skilled jobs." 

After Brexit, that will inevitably change. The British government has proposed two new temporary migration programs (TMP) schemes to combat the deficit that the disappearance of an easy supply of EU members could eventually leave. The first is aimed at “migrants from non-European Union nations to work on Britain’s farms for six months” (Russia, Moldova and Ukraine are listed but will not be the sole beneficiaries) and another is for workers from ‘low-risk’ (as defined by the UK government White Paper these are people from Australia, New Zealand, the US, Japan, Korea and Singapore and current members of the EU) countries to stay for a year.

Two new schemes

The first scheme is initially a two-year pilot, launched in September 2018. It provides for 2,500 agricultural workers to enter Britain for six months to “alleviate labor shortages during peak production periods.” Home Secretary Sajid Javid and the Environment Secretary Michael Gove write that UK “fruit and vegetable farmers are able to employ migrant workers for seasonal work for up to six months.” They note that soft fruit production in the UK has “grown dramatically, by 130 percent in the last 20 years,” and they want to make sure this growth continues.

The Government presented the two schemes in a white paper published in December 2018 entitled “The UK’s future skills-based immigration system.” In the paper, it is made clear that the UK wants to limit unskilled labor routes in the future. This is, they argue, because “we should be attracting the brightest and the best to come to the UK, and that lower-skilled migrant labor may have depressed wages or stifled innovation in our economy.” They add: "The end of free movement presents a unique opportunity for us to re-design our immigration system with this in mind —prioritizing those who will contribute the most to our economy and society…."

At the end of 2019, the government will decide whether or not to roll out the TMP scheme on a more permanent basis, depending on its feasibility.

A screenshot of a table in the FLEX report Risky business Tackling exploitation in the UK Labour Market 2017  Photo Screenshot from FLEX report

‘Protecting the vulnerable’?

The charity FLEX reviewed the schemes in a report published in March 2019 and found that these temporary migration programs could be vulnerable to abuse and could lead to the exploitation of workers, including “forced labor and debt bondage.”

Caroline Robinson, director of FLEX told Thompson Reuters “There is a clear contradiction between Britain’s efforts to tackle modern slavery and its rush to bring in workers post-Brexit. These short-term, rapid solutions will do massive damage to the government’s claim of being the world leader in tackling modern slavery.” 

Temporary workers will not have any access to the social welfare enjoyed by other UK resident workers, they find. With no access to housing or unemployment benefits, a worker on a temporary visa scheme would undoubtedly struggle to leave an abusive employer. If they did manage to leave, they risk being drawn into the illegal economy or ending up homeless, which then increases their risk of being trafficked. FLEX also points out that, workers on temporary visa schemes are unable to transfer the type of job they have been employed to do. Their short stays and the impossibility of immediate return limits them from acquiring local knowledge of labor law for instance and “localized support such as trade union membership,” adds FLEX.

Huge debts

FLEX points out that workers will be expected to pay visa fees and flights to get to the UK to work for their temporary contracts. For the six month contracts, the fee will initially be set at 244 pounds per person. The workers might also be charged recruitment fees by labor brokers overseas “even though these are illegal in the UK,” according to FLEX.

They said they had found some workers were paying up to 10,000 pounds to secure a job. Most workers cannot pay these fees upfront, so the ‘debts’ are then packaged into loans with “artificially inflated interest rates on repayment.” Once they owe this amount of money it will be difficult for these workers to leave their employment if it becomes abusive.


Another problem with TMPs is that often these temporary workers are reliant on the labor provider not only for work but also for accommodation, transport, food and often any information they do receive about employment rights, “which makes leaving them or making a complaint much more difficult.”

Since no extension is possible to the six months, even if they do leave one employer, they are unlikely to be able to find new short term employment with another agency since most employers want to place someone for six months or more.

The limited nature of this type of visa means that most temporary migrant workers could have limited language knowledge and therefore are unlikely to know their employment and immigration rights.

A symbolic picture to represent someone trying to stop an abusive relationship or working conditions  Photo Picture alliance  Pixsell  Puklavec

Situation getting worse

FLEX goes on to say that TMPs are “significantly more restrictive than free movement which grants EEA migrants the same employment rights as citizens, pathways to settlement and family reunification, and the possibility of switching jobs and moving freely from one sector to another.”

Yet even under the current free movement, cases are reported of abuse and bonded style labor conditions for EU migrants who sometimes have their passports taken from them, are asked to live in sub-standard accommodation for the duration of their work harvesting or factory shifts and have significant amounts of money deducted from their wages for this sub-standard accommodation.

In April 2018, Thompson Reuters foundation wrote a report, again based on FLEX findings, where they found that “tens of thousands of European migrants work in dangerous conditions [in the UK construction industry] without pay or a proper contract and suffer verbal abuse and beatings.”

Modern Slavery

Even before Brexit, the vulnerability of workers to exploitation in the UK seems to have been on the rise. The GLAA found that in 2018, almost 7,000 potential victims of slavery and trafficking were reported to the authorities. That represents a more than 80 percent increase in two years according to figures released by the UK’s National Crime Agency. FLEX found that in 2017 there were almost one million workers in zero hours contracts, a 6 fold increase in 10 years. There was also a 36 percent increase in agency workers. Not all of these workers were migrants but these categories of work render workers, in general, more vulnerable. With the economy looking to maximize profit to mitigate the predicted hits that Brexit will make to the economy, at least until new trade agreements are put in place, the future for temporary migrant workers looks decidedly grim in the UK, unless the safeguards asked for by FLEX are put in place.

The Global Slavery Index (GSI) in 2018 estimated that there were 136,000 people living in modern slavery in the UK. Although the UK has been lauded for some of its efforts to fight this scourge, the GSI gave the British government a less than perfect rating saying it had “received a negative rating for policies that hinder their response to modern slavery.”

Poor standards in UK asylum accommodation Source ICIBI


FLEX advocates making sure that all workers rights are protected. Increasing labor inspectorates in certain industries would also help, thinks the International Organization for Migration. The cooling off period for those accepted in to the UK for 12 months creates a “continuous churn of low waged workers with limited access to support or rights.” In order to prevent a “race to the bottom,” FLEX recommends that migrant workers should also benefit from long-term work opportunities and permanent residency.”

Currently, the Gang Masters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) has to license agricultural employers. FLEX recommends that they also be called to license “other high-risk sectors, including construction, cleaning, hospitality and care work.” Finally, they called for migrant workers to be given access, under the temporary programs, to public welfare funds; to be provided with information on their labor rights and support options; and for the UK government to provide a 24 hour multilingual helpline for workers on TMPs. 

They also asked that the UK government “should establish bilateral labor agreements with all sending countries in which the protection of workers’ rights is embedded;” and that workers must be free to change employers and be offered “reasonable terms.” Wages and conditions should be established by a standard-setting board including worker representation; and the GLAA should be given more resources to monitor labor providers overseas as well as within the UK.

If you want to report a problem about your working situation in the UK you can call 08004320804 to speak to someone at the GLAA.

The Modern Slavery Helpline has translators in most well-known languages for you to report a problem 08000 121 700


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